Contents | February 2001

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The Wedding Merchants - Page 2
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ow did we get here? The idea that the formal white wedding might not be the purview solely of society types began during the postwar rush to the altar, which saw droves of working people—who finally had a bit of disposable income—having weddings more elaborate than their parents'. The first American book devoted to bridal etiquette was published in 1948, heralding the notion that one might clip from an entire volume of social convention a single attractive chapter.

The hugely influential 1950 movie Father of the Bride traded on the new national interest in the particulars of this kind of event, and it portrayed the shift toward grander weddings. Although the bride's parents are well off, they were married simply, "in your front parlor," Mr. Banks reminds his wife; but she is unmoved by this memory or by her husband's pride in having worn a plain blue suit rather than a cutaway. Despite the old man's remonstrations, it is decided that their daughter, iconically played by Elizabeth Taylor, will not follow this family tradition: she will have a different kind of wedding, "with bridesmaids and churches and automobiles and flowers and all that." (Although the film's wedding provided a specific fantasy for a generation of young women, many of today's brides would turn up their noses at it: refreshments consisted of assorted sandwiches, some ice cream, and small cakes.) Facilitating the new preference for such affairs was the growing availability in the 1950s of both mass-produced wedding gowns and rented formal wear for men. This kind of institutionalized formality, however, had a difficult time co-existing with the social upheaval of the 1960s, and by the seventies the big white wedding (along with its dud pal, marriage) was in a period of retrenchment. Tricia Nixon's 1971 wedding in the Rose Garden was considered by many to be Squaresville itself.

The lights came back on in the summer of 1981, when alarm clocks rang in the dead of night so that millions of Americans could witness Charles and Diana plighting their troth in real time. The doings of the British royal family may constitute a poor template for contemporary American life, but the timing was right. The Reagans had just begun their stylish reign, and lavish entertaining had made a triumphant return. Although there has been some waxing and waning (such as a brief bridal scaling down after Black Monday, in 1987), for the most part the wedding world changed and has stayed changed.

The problem is that we put the formal white wedding into cold storage for so long that we're a little unclear about what, exactly, is involved. Further, the social changes that have so profoundly reshaped American life in the past half century have mowed down virtually every institution that the traditional wedding once sanctified. To stage a white wedding as the form was originally conceived requires a woman young enough that her very age suggests a measure of innocence, the still-married parents who have harbored her up to this point, and a young man of like religious affiliation who is willing to assume responsibility for her keep. Trying to pull off this piece of theater in light of the divorce culture, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the acceptability of mixed and later marriages threatens to make a complete mockery of the thing. It's like trying to stage a nativity pageant without a baby and a donkey: you can do it, but you're going to need one hell of a manger.

The modern bride, of course, doesn't dwell on any of this. She is, after all, the daughter of one of the most profound cultural shifts in American history, and this is part of her birthright: the freedom to sample, on an à la carte basis, the various liberties that young womanhood offers. She can gratefully accept a handful of condoms from her guidance counselor and also be assured that no one will laugh when she shows up at her wedding, on her father's arm, wearing a floor-length beaded white gown. And besides, there's no time to think about all of this—there's so much to do! Sending welcome baskets to the hotel rooms of out-of-town guests, learning the precise way to tether a gold band to the ring bearer's satin pillow, discerning which participants must be thanked not only with a note but also with a gift—there's no end to it.

ortunately, in view of this bewildering array of wedding essentials, a standing army of professionals has been quietly assembled during the past two decades, one consisting of salespeople and "wedding coordinators" and Web-site designers and also authors, who have flooded the market with wedding books so numerous that they would force the library at Alexandria to resort to auxiliary storage. Most of the books fall roughly into three categories: etiquette books that attempt to pistol-whip the masses into decent behavior; glossy wish books that hope to imbue the readers' events with the authors' own good taste; and gritty down-and-dirties that address the awfulness of it all head-on, albeit comically.

A fourth and steadily growing category comprises books that cater to brides who realize that the wedding business is a racket and who don't want to bust the bank for one five-hour party. Many of these books, such as Kathleen Kennedy's Priceless Weddings for Under $5,000, are very fine. The problem occurs when they focus on how to procure bargain-basement opulence, on how to cut corners ruthlessly on a fancy party rather than throw a simpler one. Kennedy's suggestion that one might offer a full bar but issue each guest two drink tickets is just a bad, bad idea. A recent bride, Lara Webb Carrigan, has written a book called The Best Friend's Guide to Planning a Wedding, which contains a description of a Vera Wang sample sale that makes the event sound like a little corner of hell, with punchy, exhausted brides waiting in line for hours in hopes of scoring a bit of picked-over cut-rate couture. It's hard to get it right when it comes to this particular intersection of money and class. No less an authority than Weddings for Dummies sums up the problem nicely—or, rather, Epictetus (whom the authors, Marcy Blum and Laura Fisher Kaiser, quote) does: "Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly." Leave it to one of the ancients to put a fine point on a modern problem: weddings today are often made comical or ghastly by their obvious overtones of strenuous social climbing. The editor-in-chief of Bride's magazine, Millie Martini Bratten, told me that the modern wedding represents "a chance to reach beyond your station," and she's right. Class aspiration is nothing new, but there was certainly a time when a girl who aped the ways of rich folk on her wedding day would have won herself more derision than respect.

The wedding merchants know that selling "class" would set off alarms in most people's heads, so what they proffer instead is "tradition," and the modern bride pays cash on the barrelhead for it, never realizing that the wholesale acquisition of other people's traditions is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls (if she put down Legendary Brides for a minute and picked up The Great Gatsby instead, she might think twice).

Genuine tradition is not for sale, because no one needs to buy it; it's moored in the customs of one's own family (remember them?). If Dad feels like a complete chump in his Sir Elegance tux, you've just learned something about your tradition. What the altar-bound of today end up buying from their numberless vendors is a dog's breakfast of bridal excess—part society wedding of the twenties, part Long Island Italian wedding of the fifties. It's The Philadelphia Story and The Wedding Singer served up together in one curious and costly buffet.

When the etiquette experts are asked about these hybrid events, how can they possibly know to which standards the questioner is hoping to hew? Often couples want to throw weddings that will be interpreted as "social" (WASP classy) but that include whatever "ethnic" elements look good to them. Miss Manners, by her own admission, tends "to become snappish during wedding season," and I don't blame her. When she attempts to construct a firebreak, she gets blasted. She informed one mother of the bride that her daughter's plan to carry a "money bag" with her during the reception constituted nothing less than "simple social blackmail." "She is counting on the guests forking over under the threat of embarrassment. This is not exactly what we call hospitality." But another Gentle Reader scolded Miss Manners for failing to do some research on other cultures in which such a custom is commonplace: "If Miss Manners thinks her uppity manners prevail everywhere, she has another think coming." Emily Post—now in the guise of her great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post, in Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette—deals with ethnic variances by abandoning her station and going PC. Peggy lumps the lucrative customs—including the "money dance," which, if successfully completed, results in "bride and groom ... covered with cash"—together with central elements of Jewish and traditional African-American weddings in a separate chapter called (you guessed it) "Multicultural Weddings."

ridal salespeople toss around the words "tradition" and "heirloom" with a galling vulgarity that is particularly evident in a captivating Learning Channel series called A Wedding Story. Each episode of the documentary-style program follows one couple through their courtship and engagement (as recounted during crosscut interviews with bride and groom), and the cameras tag along to the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the reception. The couples often have solid but not especially high-paying jobs (Wedding Story careers have included hair stylist, nurse, and police officer); they spend what must be a staggering amount of their income on these events, and they can often be glimpsed at the very point of purchase.

From the archives:

"Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" (February 1982)
An unruly market may undo the work of a giant cartel and of an inspired, decades-long ad campaign. By Edward Jay Epstein
In one episode an engaged couple, Ivette and Joe, are led into a jeweler's inner sanctum to get a first look at the ring they have ordered. But as the salesman relinquishes it to them for inspection, he rattles off a bit of boilerplate: "This is the beginning of your family's heirloom. This is what you're going to pass on to your children and your children's children. It is the thing that bonds the two of you, and I want you to appreciate it and treat it that way." Ivette and Joe do not seem at all surprised to find themselves lectured by a diamond merchant. In our culture the wise counselors who instruct young people on the most important ritual of their lives are salesmen. Nor do the couple seem to realize that if the man is telling the truth, they can simply go home and wait for a family member to fork over Ivette's heirloom ring.

One opulent wedding guide, Weddings: A Celebration, by Beverly Clark, lionizes the gimmick of a bride who bought a seventeenth-century Bible in which couples—presumably of the same family—had recorded important events for some 300 years. She and her groom then added their wedding date to the list, a gesture of almost comical crassness. A family tradition, it turns out, is something that fancy folk do and that you can do too—against the knowledge that your future daughter may not have any more truck with your choices than you had with your mother's.

Of course, the woman who long ago branded tradition as a commodity on the American open market is Martha Stewart, and she established herself in the business of wedding traditions very early on. With her uncanny ability to predict—and often to forge—the hottest societal trends, she was on top of the white-wedding craze not long after Princess Diana braced herself and thought of England. Her 1987 publishing phenomenon, Weddings, helped to cement her reputation as one of our most important cultural figures. Its pride of place in the wedding-wish-book canon has been challenged only by the publication of a second volume, The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Weddings.

In fairness, Stewart has always been great at fanning the mini-flames of actual tradition: in the introduction to her first book, Entertaining (1982), she wrote that when she wants the "comfort of childhood" to come flooding back, she whips up some of her mother's Polish specialties, some nice "pierogi or stuffed cabbage." One has long sensed, however, that it is other people's traditions that she really has her eye on, and the autobiographical sketch in Weddings gives a clue as to whose traditions they are. When she decided to marry Andy Stewart, "it seemed appropriate to be married in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopalian service, mainly because we didn't have anyplace else to go." It sounds like a lovely affair, but surely it would have been "appropriate," strictly speaking, for an Episcopalian (or—talk about "appropriate"— two of them) to be married at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopal service.

The Stewart enterprise is powerful enough and thoroughly enough girded with her unquestionable style (my God, the woman's way with simple white daisies) that many absurdities get subsumed in the larger picture. The irony is that many Stewart-inspired events are occasions from which members of the true WASP ascendancy—frugal, abhorrent of excess—would flee as fast as their skinny little legs could carry them. The WASPs whom the wedding merchants hope to conjure are more on the order of the robber barons and their families—people like Alva Vanderbilt, who managed to fuse her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough, and celebrated the family's new acquisition in an explosion of pink and white flowers in St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. Or they're WASPs as imagined by Hollywood screenwriters: Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord invited 506 guests to the reception after her second wedding, in The Philadelphia Story. Couples who think they are striking a classically American chord with their tuxedo-clad swing bands and galaxies of trumpet lilies might consider the sentiments of the super-WASP poet Elinor Wylie (who left her husband for a married man—no wonder we look to these people for wedding-day guidance): "Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones / There's something in this richness that I hate."

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Photograph by CSA Archive.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2001; The Wedding Merchants - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 112-118.